Benefit shows with pre-determined guests are by nature a skewed perspective: neither the band, nor the guests are in their regular elements, so you hope for the best, knowing you’ll get some fun collaborations heavy on cursory pleasure and maybe not a lot of deep-digging.
Kudos to moe., then, for bucking the trend. Their 20th anniversary tour opened with impressive aplomb at Roseland Ballroom Friday, and thanks in part to a mix of well-chosen, well-utilized co-conspirators, the band was fun, groovy, limber and exploratory, with nary a dull moment.
Here were 10 great flavors:
1. “Timmy Tucker > Bearsong” to open
I’ll always have a soft spot for moe, but they don’t light a fire under me like they once did; something happened in the mid-2000s where their shows began to slow down and yield fewer and fewer frissons, and their segues lacked the command of years earlier. And yet, tonight’s guest-less opener – a gnarly “Timmy” that brought a smoker of a solo from Chuck right out of the gate, and a motoring jam into “Bearsong” – set the tone for the evening. Together, the songs were about a half hour, and moe was as dizzying, as iridescent, and as wily as I’ve heard them in what felt like years. Will the adventurous, yet focused moe jam be once again regular?
2. The first sounds of strings
Twangy banjo from Danny Barnes put a country shimmer on “Captain America,” and the dominant tone of the show – hootenanny – was pronounced. Of all five guests, it was Marco who perhaps added the most, but Barnes is such a tasteful and energetic participant that everything he did felt like neither too much nor too little.
3. 10 minutes at the “Happy Hour Hero” lounge
Happy Hour Hero is one of those impressively elastic moe songs that can steer into any number of genres depending on who’s driving the bus. With David Sanborn – sadly underused, but according to Rob had a previous engagement – this Hero became acid-rock and lounge. Sanborn’s corrosive solo, some psychedelic flourishes from Marco and a thick drum and bass pocket thanks to Butch Trucks playing off Vinnie and Jim, brought this one home.
4. The rumble of “Whipping Post”
You knew there’d be Allmans, but it was hard to predict this one, and to the band’s credit, they delivered it not as a bar band trying to ape the Allmans would, but as moe would: a taut, yet psychedelic treatment that featured another spicy Sanborn solo (unfortunately hampered by sax mic problems), and a gnarly, almost feral guitar eruption from Chuck to bring things home. Getting Jeff Austin to sing it – a little bit over the top, but really, how often do you get to howl Whipping Post with Butch Trucks pounding away behind you? – was also a good call.
5. Al gets his Floyd on
It was Chuck who took the lion’s share of the “don’t fuck with me” solos – you know, those moe climaxes where long, flowy progressions suddenly reach a torrid pace and become machine gun fire hails of notes. Al, on the other hand, spent much of the night slathered in psychedelics: bent tones, bubbly runs, spacey conversation. Most of his solos felt like depth charges, whereas Chuck’s were heat-seeking missiles. I continue to marvel at how these two, between them, cover so much ground.
6. A true “Liz Reed”
This one went long, and deep, and brought some of night’s finest work from Marco, who offered Latin shades, jazz-funk and blues organ in the spot where, in the Allmans, Gregg Allman usually bridges the two guitarists’ solos without much exploration. The whole tune – 21 minutes, and the show’s longest single selection — felt like a little world.
7. Yee haw “Punchline”
With both Austin and Barnes aboard, we were waiting for the night’s big ol’, pickin’-and-a-grinnin’ hoedown. “Shake Your Hips” had that, but the better might have been “Waiting for the Punchline,” which began as it usually does and then as its jammy middle picked up, veered from a folk-rock jam into a true picking party, with both string player guests pushing their hosts to jam harder and tastier, instead of the other way around.
8. The Marco effect
Every guest except Sanborn saw one or more of their originals or regular songs get a full-on moe treatment, for example, and a reading of Marco’s “The Real Morning Party” was a subversive delight. Not really collaborative in the sense of the moe guys soloing over a Marco groove, but rather moe as Marco’s backing band for a stretch: the heat of a full band behind the zany keyboardist, and a band that also had clear respect and admiration for the song. Later, Marco had another “Marco moment”: he took hold of Blue Jeans Pizza and shook it up, yielding something that split the difference between circa 2003 Duo jazz-rock and the meatier end of rock ‘n’ roll moe. Marco was the night’s MVP, counting guests <i>and</i> members of moe., and he made his presence felt everywhere.
9. Yonder moe for “East Nashville Easter”
This one began innocently enough – moe tackles YMSB, pretty cool, pretty cool – and then produced a great little jam that snuck right up on the audience and was suddenly producing big payoffs. Moe still has that effect: they can reach down into a song and unexpectedly pull up a gold nugget when you think they’re going to play it straight and neat.
10. Allmans down “Mexico” way
When it really gets going, Mexico sounds like an Allman Brothers tune anyway, but this version was hard-hitting and hard-driving: a roadhouse-style rambler that was a bit more Southern rock than moe boogie, and felt at any second like it might bust into Jessica (Marco even quoted some of Chuck Leavell’s classic Jessica solo when it was his turn to strut). It was a nice way to tie the night together, flavored with a little bit of everything.
Photo by Jeremy Gordon